Thursday, May 15, 2014

Thoughts on the season 3 finale of CBS's "Person of Interest"

CBS's "Person of Interest" is very much a post-post-9/11 show. The initial wave of post-9/11 shows, like "24," "Alias," and others, were/are about wish-fulfillment: there are very real threats out there, but they can be stopped. "Person of Interest" does deal with threats as well, though most of them are on a smaller, more personal scale; however, it's a post-post-9/11 show because it's also broadly about the surveillance state, as this N.Y. Times article discusses.

At first, the show was about Harold Finch, the reclusive genius who created a Machine that could predict future acts of terrorism and crime, and John Reese, the former CIA operative dragged out of the wallowing pit of misery by Finch to act on the Machine's predictions. In a way, Finch was like Chloe O'Brian on "24" (i.e., the source of all information) and Reese was like Jack Bauer (the doer). Gradually, the team expanded to include a once-corrupt cop who slowly reforms; a former Army interrogator turned NYPD detective; Shaw, a shadowy female government assassin (played expertly by Sarah Shahi); and a sociopathic female hacker known as Root.

The show also moved away from its structure of a crime-of-the-week augmented by flashbacks to Reese's CIA past, toward more of a conspiracy-driven serialized arc, first with a secret organization within NYPD known as "HR"; and later, a nasty blend of corporate and government interests intent on building their own Machine.


In the season 3 finale, that corporate/government conspiracy has set up a false flag operation where Finch and several other high level government officials have been captured by a seemingly anarchistic terror group, which puts them on "trial" via a live Internet stream, disclosing the existence of the Machine and its surveillance. Finch admits his role in creating the Machine and pleads for the others to be released, but it looks like the anarchists are going to kill everyone anyway. That's when two separate rescue operations sneak in, one involving Reese and company, and the other involving the police. It turns out that the entire "trial" was a prelude to a planned act of terror (blowing up the building and killing the hostages and first responders), which would make the government willing to go along with the plans for activating the conspiracy's Machine, known as Samaritan, and works as planned.

Meanwhile, Root and Shaw have been on a mission which viewers were led to believe was to sabotage Samaritan's servers, but which we find out at the end of the episode was much less; it was already too late to stop Samaritan. All Root could do was infect Samaritan with a "blind spot" that would overlook seven false identities, which were distributed to Root, Shaw, Reese, and Finch (with the remaining three left presumably for key characters to be introduced next season). [What about the detectives? One was killed mid-season, and I guess the other is not on Samaritan's radar.] At the very end of the episode, those four scatter with their new identities intact.

This was a tense and audacious episode. The "trial" by those with grievances has been done many times before (including by "24"), and it was fine here, though nothing special. But the reveal that they were too late to stop Samaritan from coming on-line, and all they could do was hide out from its otherwise all-knowing gaze, was chilling. It reminded me of nothing other than the end of the movie version of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when the Fellowship has been split apart (Boromir aka Sean "walking spoiler" Bean dead; Gandalf also thought to be dead; Frodo and Sam on their own with the Ring; Merry and Pippen captured by orcs; and Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn in pursuit of the orcs). Samaritan's capacity, like the original Machine, to "see all" is, of course, very much like Sauron's Eye.

I'm quite partial to serialized dramas, so I've loved "Person of Interest"'s strong shift in this direction. I almost gave up on it early in the second season, and I'm glad I stuck with it.

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